With a doctorate in Chinese history, and a career lecturing in Chinese textiles in New York, China and Hong Kong and teaching at the School of Oriental and African Studies, Lorna Hunting’s credentials as a historian are undisputed. Yet when she turned to writing fiction in retirement, it was her ancestors’ past in Cumbria on which she leaned for inspiration.

Her forebears on her mother’s side fled the Irish famine in the 19th century to settle at Parton, near Whitehaven, and Lorna grew up on tales of the coastal town.

“There was time slip in our family and my great grandmother was still alive when I was 12. She called me ‘lass’ and said thee and thou. My great great grandmother was married at St James’ Church and the family went to matins there,” says Lorna.

“Although I’ve never lived there, I’ve always felt an affinity with Whitehaven. It is such a super place, I absolutely love it. A friend visited and said they had been down to the area around the harbour but hadn’t ventured any further and I could have wept. As a historian I’m really interested in the past, and you can just feel the history when you walk around the streets of Whitehaven.”

Her pioneering ancestors had left Cumbria and emigrated to Canada to open coal mines in the first half of the 19th century, which inspired her first novel, New Beginnings on Vancouver Island, in 2021. Set in 1854, Stag Liddell, a young collier from Whitehaven, signs up to work on the island’s new coal mines and, while waiting for the ship to Canada, meets ambitious schoolteacher Kate McAvoy who is also making the trip. As the ship nears its destination, Stag and Kate’s relationship begins to blossom, but damning information emerges and a pact made years before comes into play.

Great British Life: Whitehaven Whitehaven (Image: visitlakedistrict.com)

The book’s sequel, Called to Vancouver Island, follows new characters a few years later in the same Canadian location with the arrival of Grace Williams, a young English missionary.

In between the two Canada novels, she published The Shackletons of Whitehaven, returning to Cumbria for the shipping saga and romance based around a prominent family in the port: overworked patriarch Hector, his ambitious son Fergus, his independent-minded girlfriend Becky and an orphan called Rory.

She has already finished the sequel, The Shackletons of Coates Lane, which is due out this spring, as she continues what will be a Whitehaven trilogy.

Some of the locations in the book, like the Indian King pub where Becky lives, are real. Now a shop, the Indian King was at 51 Roper Street, one of more than 130 public houses in Whitehaven by the late 1800s. The grade II listed building, built in 1770, hosted sittings of the Bankruptcy Commissioners and was the box office for the Roper Street Theatre Royal. It is also said to have been the first inn in the town to have flush toilets installed in the 1850s, although unfortunately there was no sewer, so the new-fangled toilets flushed out into Coates Lane.

Great British Life: The Shackeltons of Whitehaven, a sequel is due soonThe Shackeltons of Whitehaven, a sequel is due soon (Image: Lorna Harding)

The Three Tuns, on the corner of Scotch Street and Duke Street, also makes an appearance in the book, as does the Golden Lion, another listed building that is now home to Costa. The Waverley Hotel is a real building that makes it into Lorna’s fiction, and Hector and his wife Elizabeth live in an identifiable property in Queen Street.

“I try to be as authentic as I can be without being intrusive to new owners of buildings; I don’t want to upset anyone,” says Lorna. She bows to the greater knowledge of locally based historians when it comes to finding sources for the information she needs to bring her books to life.

“When this story was in its infancy, my first port of call was the Cumbrian Archives in Whitehaven and I would like to thank the archivist there for their help and expertise during my visit,” she acknowledges. On a week-long visit to the town for The Shackletons, she spent two days in the Archives, in Scotch Street.

The team there helped her subsequently too. “I got really stuck on the detail about ferries to the Isle of Man and how long it would take to get to Dublin and back, and they were able to help me.

“I would also like to thank Peter and Michael Moon, of Michael Moon Books, for, over more years than I care to remember, being the source of the many interesting, books, maps and pamphlets that make up my personal library on 19th century Whitehaven.”

Great British Life: The history of shipping in Whitehaven is told at the town's Beacon Museum The history of shipping in Whitehaven is told at the town's Beacon Museum (Image: visitlakedistrict.com)

Laura says she first visited the shop, which is now in Lowther Street, 40 years ago. This time it provided resources when she was looking for information on dye manufacturing and a facsimile of an 1861 auction. John Whittle’s ironmongery, in Roper Street, that also traded as a nail manufacturers, iron and steel merchants, explosive agents and furniture dealer, appears in the new book.

As one reviewer writes: “The historical research must have been extensive, for the author pulled me into another time and place, and I felt as though I were in Whitehaven with Fergus and Becky.”

It extends to the health issues of the day and the use of drugs like laudanum. “We are so lucky to have things like the 1849 survey of health services which covers the infirmary and diseases of the day.”

In fiction, however, place and period are nothing without plot and people. “My aim is to tell a good story with interesting characters in a historically accurate setting,” says Lorna, “and although I do a lot of research, I don’t let it get in the way of the story.”

Old newspapers she found on eBay and the archives of the Whitehaven News proved useful, in particular for identifying authentic names of the period to inspire her characters. “Nubbley was a lovely name I came across. There were also lots of Cartwrights, Rudds, Needhams, Craggs, Leggs and Bells.” Accurate Christian names of the time include Jeremiah, Evangelina and Amy.

One of Lorna’s skills is making her characters seem real. “I can see them and hear their voices when I’m writing,” she says. “I start a scene and I will know what I want to happen but before I write it I have no idea how they are going to act and what they are going to say. I can hear them talking and I just write it down. I never start by thinking ‘he will say this’ and ‘she will do that’.”

Great British Life: Three of Lorna's titlesThree of Lorna's titles (Image: Lorna Harding)

The book has also been released on Audible.

Based in Stamford, Lorna now writes historical fiction full time, though she is known in academic circles under her real name Jocelyn Chatterton. “I always wanted to write,” she says. “I first wrote in my 30s but I wasn’t happy with it. But in the past ten years my parents have died, I remarried and I retired so I know quite a bit more hopefully now.”

She is at her best writing from 9am-1pm. “Once I start writing and get into it it just pours out. I write chronologically and average about 1,500 words a day, so it takes about three months to produce a first draft of about 85,000 words.

“When I’m writing I’m pretty immersed in it; I’ve got papers and research all around me. I’ve made notes of deaths in newspapers because I think they could be useful to me, and I’ve got several notebooks of Whitehaven information.”

She admits to very occasionally getting things incorrect. “I once spelled marra as marrer which local people let me know about,” she says.

The Shackletons of Whitehaven ends with family rifts resolved and Fergus in a prime position to progress into the developing steam age, though choppy waters may lie ahead. The railways are coming, threatening everything those in Whitehaven know about seaborne transport and trade.

Lorna’s fans will be hanging on every word.

Signed copies of The Shackletons of Whitehaven are available from Michael Moon Books, in Whitehaven, and the title can be ordered from other independent bookshops.


Great British Life: Michael Moon Books, in Lowther Street, WhitehavenMichael Moon Books, in Lowther Street, Whitehaven (Image: Michael Moon Books)

A treasure trove for book lovers

Michael Moon opened his first book shop 53 years ago. Its most recent incarnation has been in Whitehaven’s Lowther Street since 1997. The legacy of this dedication to books, maps, facsimiles of copperplate engravings and ephemera is an Aladdin’s cave of treasure for lovers of the written word and printed illustration.

The shop seen from the street is just the beginning as steps lead up to a warren of 13 rooms packed to the rafters with books of all shapes and sizes and in all genres of both fiction and non-fiction.

It is very much a family business with Michael joined by his son Peter in the shop and his daughter Louisa and her husband Brian Goodwin also involved.

Peter says: “I wasn't sure what I wanted to do but having done various other things I became a police community support officer for a number of years in Keswick and Cleator Moor. Then dad offered me the opportunity to work for him ten years ago.”

They acquire books though house clearances, private sellers and fairs and sell both online and in the shop, which is renowned for its historical material, a draw for anyone interested in local history and writers like Lorna for whom it is a great source of information.

“What we're able to provide for people like Lorna maps where they can drop themselves into a time in history in a three-dimensional way. we were able to give her sufficient information so she could immerse herself into the period and, from things like health reports of the period offer that anecdotal evidence to bring it to life. You can see how writers can build a narrative around that.”

Over the years, authors including Bill Rollinson, Lord Melvyn Bragg and Hunter Davies have visited the shop.

The Moons are proud of Whitehaven and keen to remind people that it was the first post-Medieval planned town – maps show how Lord Lonsdale design the streets so he had an uninterrupted view down to the harbour from his castle – and was once the first place where news from America landed.

Great British Life: Peter and Michael MoonPeter and Michael Moon (Image: Michael Moon Books)

“George Washington’s granny is buried in the graveyard over the road, the Cunard Line started here and we have our own Bounty mutineer. And Whitehaven has more listed buildings per square than anywhere else,” says Michael.

There are also lesser-known facts. “This was a working class area and what we have here shows the grim realities of that. When someone was pulled out of the water they would put them in a barrel and role it down the hill to hit a wall. If they came to, they knew you were still alive.”

Of the historical material, Peter adds: “They are little pieces of history as much as anything to be able to handle a map from 350 years ago I know that it's passed through generations certainly has a lot of appeal.”

There are plenty of modern titles too among the 40,000 books they estimate fill one mile of shelves, with 10,000 listed online.

“We also have lots of seemingly inconsequential things that have survived such as posters and printed ephemera that were never intended to have a long life,” says Peter. “We don’t make a lot of money out it, it’s very niche, but we are long standing recyclers keeping books in circulation and where possible finding a home for them for the next 30 years or so.”

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